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Intimations of mortality: Graveyard, crematorium workers say job now edged with 'COVID fear'

Intimations of mortality: Graveyard, crematorium workers say job now edged with 'COVID fear'
By Prashant Rangnekar

New Delhi, May 2 () When death is an everyday business, it takes on the ordinariness of just another job but COVID-19 has changed that equation and those working in crematoriums and graveyards say they are now compelled to confront their own mortality.

They thought they were inured to death, even the most tragic ones, but the job itself is edged with apprehension these days, said Pappu, who works at the Nigambodh crematorium.

The 39-year-old, who has been helping cremate bodies for 12 years, said he ran away when the first coronavirus patient was brought to him on March 13.

In the weeks since, he has overcome his fear but only to some extent.

In his years of work at the city's busiest crematorium, Pappu said he has disposed of countless bodies, some of those gravely ill, but never did he fear the dead.

The situation has dramatically changed after the pandemic and he is learning to live with all the precautions everyone, and he and his colleagues particularly, must take to ensure they don't get infected.

"There is a risk in everything. But this is our job and we have to do it," Pappu, who goes by just one name, told while sanitising the CNG crematorium block after a COVID-19 patient was cremated.

Pappu, who lives in Ghaziabad and has a son and two daughters, does not step inside the small block that houses the CNG crematorium units without wearing a PPE kit if there is a coronavirus body that has come for cremation.

It has become much better. In the early days of the pandemic, there was very little information and no set guidelines, and people were therefore more scared, he said.

According to the guidelines on disposal of bodies by the Health Ministry, the crematorium, burial ground staff should be sensitised and take care that COVID-19 does not pose any additional risk to them.

"The staff will practice standard precautions of hand hygiene, use of masks and gloves," the guidelines state.

Pappu's co-worker Harinder Prasad said he would earlier pick the body and keep it on on the rails that would take it inside the CNG incinerator.

But no more, he said, citing the risk of infection.

"Now, no one even opens the protective sheet wrapped around the body. It is directly placed inside the incinerator," said the 36-year-old as he goes about his daily work.

Scenes of death always present a surreal picture. And more so these days.

Outside the CNG crematorium block, the staff from two hospitals with bodies of coronavirus patients are wearing PPE kits. Pappu and Prasad, who work with masks and gloves, put on the PPE robes whenever they come in contact with a body.

Doctors, paramedical staff are hailed as "corona warriors". Pappu and Prasad are also part of the band of men and women who face the risk of infection but keep at their jobs – because it is an essential service.

"If we don't do this then who will. Someone has to do this job," said Prasad in a matter of fact tone.

Asked about the fear of dealing with the bodies of coronavirus patients, Prasad said, "Of course, there is a risk of infection. But I fear living humans more than the dead. They are not going to get up and harm us if we take proper precautions."

A resident of Bawana, Prasad said he takes a bath twice. Once while leaving the crematorium and then after reaching home.

Pradeep, the supervisor of the CNG crematorium, agreed with Pappu and Prasad.

"We have to keep doing our work. If we take proper precautions, I don't think there is anything to worry about," said Pradeep, who also goes by his first name.

Pradeep said patients who have died of COVID-19 are cremated in the CNG incinerator rather than placed on an open pyre in accordance with government guidelines.

Not far from Nigambodh Ghat is the Jadid Qabrastan Ahle Islam in ITO, one of the designated graveyards to bury Muslims who have died of the disease.

Mohammad Shamim, the caretaker, said 54 bodies related to the coronavirus have been buried in the 50-acre graveyard since the outbreak.

According to Shamim, even those who are not coronavirus positive but have shown COVID-19 symptoms are buried according to government guidelines.

Shamim, a third-generation care-taker of the graveyard, said the risk of infection is always there but the job has to be done.

Several precautions have been taken at the graveyard. There is a separate entry and exit for those 'coronavirus bodies' and a corner earmarked for burial.

"There are usually four people who are involved in digging, helping place the body in the grave, and then cover it with earth. But for coronavirus cases, we don't ask out men to touch the bodies. Two family members and two people from the hospital with PPE kits do that.

"Even the digging takes place with the help of the JCB, Unlike the normal cases where we dig a three-feet grave, in case of coronavirus, we dig a 10-feet pit," he says, pointing out to the graves marked with numbers.

Still, he said, overlooking the entire process is a risky affair. "We keep sanitising ourselves and change our gloves at regular intervals."

Delhi reported 3,738 coronavirus cases and 61 fatalities till Saturday, according to the Union Health Ministry figures. PR MINMIN

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